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The Pope’s Real Message…

In Washington, D.C., a town where status almost always counts for more than substance, having your own Towncar with a driver or commanding a motorcade that features a dozen black Suburbans is perhaps the ultimate sign that you have “made it” in the Unholy See.

The Pope's Fiat surrounded by non-Fiat like vehicles

The Pope’s Fiat surrounded by non-Fiat like vehicles

Pope Francis, the best retail politician in America this week, showed up at the White House in a squat little Italian Fiat 500L, the vehicle the Eurocar rental people try to pawn off on you if you’re lucky enough to visit Florence. The car gets 35 miles to the gallon and retails for $20,000. Fancy it isn’t, practical it more surely is.

The contrast this week between the smiling, waving, warm, genuine, selfie posing, Fiat-riding Bishop of Rome and the pompous self-assurance of the American ruling class could not have been more pronounced.

Visiting the Sick…

The New Yorker’s humor columnist Andy Borowitz headlined his satirical piece on the Pope on Capitol Hill by suggesting that Francis was doing the Lord’s work by visiting the sick.”

Who but Pope Francis could have stood before the dysfunctional American Congress, a group of mostly hyper partisan, re-election obsessed elites who have spent the summer debating shutting down the government again, and reminded them of why they are where they are.

“You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics,” Francis reminded the multitudes. Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar, a Tea Party Republican and a Catholic, missed the responsibility message. Gosar boycotted the Pope’s speech.

Pope Francis speaks to Congress

Pope Francis speaks to Congress

Gosar said he expected Francis would devote a good portion of his speech to the “questionable science” of climate change and anyway the Pope acts like “a leftist politician” and therefore deserves to be dissed in public. Francis’ speech did touch on climate change, but his real message – compassion, care for the poor, shared responsibility for one another, peace and “the pursuit of the common good” were no doubt lost on too many of our political wise men, people like Gosar, the members of the caucus of constant division.

“A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members,” the Pope said in the House chamber, “especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.” It was more civics lesson than political speech, more a sermon on service from a smart Jesuit than a list of policy prescriptions from a South American leftist.

Still, since everything in America is at all times political, the voices of the entrenched right, who willfully ignore the perils of income inequality and the reality of climate science, had the long knives out for Francis even before his Fiat rolled toward the White House.

The Sermon from the Beltway…

“Pope Francis embodies sanctity but comes trailing clouds of sanctimony,” was the ironic bombast from George Will, the most sanctimonious of all the Beltway gasbags.

“With a convert’s indiscriminate zeal, [Francis] embraces ideas impeccably fashionable, demonstrably false and deeply reactionary,” Will sermonized in his syndicated column. “They would devastate the poor on whose behalf he purports to speak — if his policy prescriptions were not as implausible as his social diagnoses are shrill.”

Whew. Caring for the poor, trying to eliminate poverty, working for peace, ensuring the survival of the planet are now merely “fashionable.” George Will will now be remembered as the first conservative apologist for the status quo to label the carpenter of Nazareth’s ideas as “reactionary.”

Most of the ruling class and many on the far right, perhaps because of their own blinkered beliefs in the unadorned wonders of capitalism and their comfortable status among the well off, have missed Pope Francis’ real message, which is why they fail to understand his broad and deep appeal around the world.

Pope Francis blesses a child in St. Peter's Square after celebrating Palm Sunday Mass at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis blesses a child in St. Peter’s Square after celebrating Palm Sunday Mass at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The Pope isn’t really a politician in the sense that George Will sees him, but rather a philosopher, or even better a religious philosopher. His message – like Jesus or Buddha, darn I say, Mohammed, transcend politics.

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” the gospels report as Jesus’ response to a question about whether Jews should pay taxes to the Roman authorities. On trial for his teaching and presenting a threat to the ruling order, Jesus reminded Pilate that his “kingdom is not of this world.”

Service of the Human Person…

Catholics and non-Catholics around the world have warmed to this Pontiff precisely because he constantly, in word and action, lives the fundamental “kingdom of God” message of inclusion, caring, dignity, hope and decency. Francis’ entire visit to the United States and all his public pronouncements re-enforce the essential message of his faith. The Pope was, as a good pastor does, merely reminding the leaders of our secular kingdom, that they can benefit – indeed all of us can benefit – from behaving less like partisan division makers and more like the Lord’s disciples.

When Francis said, “If politics must truly be the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build the greatest common good,” he was simply saying that we must use “politics” to address the world’s real issues. That isn’t a message from the left or right, but it is both spiritual and practical. And it is the language of a leader.

Think about this: suppose Mr. Gosar, the boycotting Arizona congressman, were as important as he obviously thinks he is and had been invited to give a major speech at St. Peter’s in Vatican City. Imagine that Pope Francis had been invited to attend that speech, taking time away from visiting a homeless shelter or cleaning up the mess that has become the Vatican bank. Can you imagine the South American leftist being so self-important and so rude as to boycott the speech of one of his right wing critics? Of course not. It wouldn’t happen and that speaks volumes about the main in the Fiat.

Francis has been administering to the sick in Washington, New York, at the United Nation and elsewhere. Let’s hope – indeed let’s pray – that after his remarkable visit that a few more of us are open to his message of healing.


Deal or No Deal…

There was bipartisan understanding that when the Iranians indicated a readiness to talk the U.S. would lead the negotiations to test Iran’s seriousness. – Statement supporting the Iranian nuclear agreement signed by sixty bipartisan foreign policy and national security leaders.

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Republican opposition to the Obama administration’s historic nuclear deal with Iran has been visceral. Most Republicans disliked the idea even before negotiations commenced in earnest. They hated the deal when the preliminary details emerged months ago. Now they detest the final agreement.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.

Much of the opposition is purely partisan, some is based on historic rightwing Republican opposition to any foreign policy agreement, a good deal is based on both a concern about the deal’s impact on Israel and a desire to curry favor with the Israeli-American lobby, and some is based  – a minor consideration one suspects – on the belief that a better deal could be had if only there were better negotiators.

I wrote back in April about the traditional Republican skepticism about foreign policy agreements that dates back to the Treaty of Versailles, but the current visceral NO seems in an altogether new category of opposition.

Placed in the wide context of presidential deal making in the post-war period, the almost total Republican opposition to a deal, which is designed to prevent, or at the very least substantially delay, Iranian development of a nuclear weapons, is a distinct outlier. It is difficult to find an historic parallel to the level of partisan disdain for a major foreign policy initiative of any president, Republican or Democrat. It amounts to the emergence of a new political generation of what Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson once called “the primitives.”

Return of “the primitives…”

It took the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy more than eight years to negotiate a test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Kennedy doggedly pursued the negotiations – Great Britain was also a party to the talks – and finally signed the treaty in August 1963. A few weeks later the Senate ratified the agreement by the strongly bipartisan margin of 81-19 with fifty-six Democrats and twenty-five Republicans constituting the majority.

John Kennedy signs test ban treaty flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.

John Kennedy signs the limited test ban treaty in 1963 flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.

The treaty came about in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, hardly a moment in 20th Century history when trust in the Russians was at a high point. The same could be said for Richard Nixon’s effort to craft the first strategic arms limitation treaty or Ronald Reagan’s later efforts to strike a grand disarmament bargain with the Soviets that Reagan hoped would eliminate nuclear weapons.

Jimmy Carter’s effort to sign and ratify the Panama Canal treaties in the late 1970’s arguably contributed to his defeat in 1980, as well as the defeat of several Senate liberals – Idaho’s Frank Church, for example – who courageously supported the effort to ensure stability around the vital canal by relinquishing control to the Panamanians. Senators from both parties supported the treaties or they never would have been ratified.

In each of these cases there was substantial political opposition to presidential action, but it is nearly impossible when looking closely at this history not to conclude that each of the “deals” were beneficial to long-term U.S. security. An underlying assumption in each of these historic agreements is that presidents of both parties act, if not always perfectly, always with desire to produce an outcome that is in the nation’s – and the world’s – best interest. Few reasonable people would suggest, given the intervening history, that Eisenhower or Kennedy, Nixon or Carter or set out to make a deal that was not ultimately in the country’s best interest or that would imperil a long-time ally.

Yet, that is precisely what Republican critics of President Obama’s agreement with Iran are saying. Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, called it “an absolute disgrace that this president has sacrificed the security and stability” of Israel in order to reach a deal. “This is a betrayal that history will never forget,” Franks added. Franks is the same guy who introduced a resolution authorizing war with Iran back in 2013.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk went even farther. “This agreement condemns the next generation to cleaning up a nuclear war in the Persian Gulf,” Kirk said. “It condemns our Israeli allies to further conflict with Iran.” Kirk continued: “This is the greatest appeasement since Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler.” The senator predicted that Israel would now have to “take military action against Iran.”

Idaho Senator James Risch, a Republican and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said “the deal shreds the legacy of arms control and nonproliferation that the United States has championed for decades – it will spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that will be impossible to contain.” Risch accused the president and Secretary of State John Kerry of going back on commitments to Congress and said, “The West will have to live with a nuclear Iran and will abandon our closest ally, Israel, under this horribly flawed agreement.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, a GOP presidential candidate, said “This is the most dangerous, irresponsible step I have ever seen in the history of watching the Mideast. Barack Obama, John Kerry, have been dangerously naïve.” Graham admitted on national television that he had not read the agreement, which was announced just an hour before the South Carolina senator pronounced his judgment.

OK…What’s Your Suggestion…

When you sift through the various denunciations of the Iran deal you find a remarkable degree of consistence in the criticism: abandonment of Israel, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, assurance that Iran would be locked into an absolutely certain path to attain nuclear weapons. What is also remarkably consistent is that among all the words used to denounce the deal are very few that actually address the details contained in the 150-plus page document. As a result, Republicans come dangerously close to suggesting that Obama and Kerry have consciously sold out Israel, made an already explosive Middle East more so and weakened U.S. national security all in the name of just naively making a deal.

There are legitimate questions about the best way to contain Iran in any quest for the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Would continuing sanctions against Iran without international inspections of Iranian facilities be better as an approach that what Obama suggests, which allows for detailed oversight that is backed by our allies the British, French and Germans, as well as Putin’s Russia? That would be a real debate over effectiveness, a principled discussion over means and ends.

There are two men in Washington to watch closely as this “debate” reaches the end game. One is Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has lately railed against the agreement, but remains a thoughtful, fair-minded voice on foreign policy deals. The other is Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, one of the key members of the U.S. team that worked out the deal with Iran who all seem to agree actually knows something about the subject of nuclear weapons development.

In a recent NPR interview, Moniz offered a full-throated defense of the agreement. “I think we should realize that basically forever, with this agreement, Iran will be, in some sense, farther away from a nuclear weapon than they would be without it,” Moniz said. “Now, clearly in the early years, in the first decade, first 15 years, we have lots of very, very explicit constraints on the program that roll back current activities. Whether it’s in enrichment, whether it’s in the stockpile of enriched uranium that they hold, whether it’s in R&D, all of these are going to be rolled back, complemented by much, much stronger transparency measures than we have today.”

The Whole World is Watching…

While Congressional Republicans work to overturn the administration’s Iran deal – Mario Rubio has pledged, for example, to undo the deal on his first day in office – much of the rest of the world has moved on. The most impressive leader on the current world stage, Pope Francis, has endorsed the deal and will speak to Congress just days before the vote. Germany’s Angela Merkel, a politician who displays more grit and gumption than the entire United States Senate, strongly backs the deal. Great Britain has re-opened its long shuttled embassy in Tehran and French officials have spoken of a “new era” in its relations with Iran.

iranmapRejecting the deal will serve only to strengthen the hand of the Iranian hardliners and the other hardliner who is party to the agreement, Vladimir Putin of Russia. Do Congressional Republicans, or for that matter Democrats like Chuck Schumer who oppose the deal, think for a minute that Putin will not find a way to fill the void that will be left if the Iranian agreement collapses in the huff of American domestic politics?

Perhaps the Europeans recognize what some American politicians fail to grasp. A fifteen year, highly monitored deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is about as good as it gets in the modern Middle East. The critics who wonder what happens after fifteen years are missing the fact that the interval provides a window for young and more worldly Iranians to assert themselves as the country tiptoes back into the world community.

The pragmatic bottom line question is simply this: can the U.S. and the rest of the western world continue a policy of isolation for a country of 80 million people, more than 40 percent of whom are under 24 years of age? Obama’s agreement isn’t perfect, but this deal gives the west leverage to influence and indeed control the Iranian nuclear threat for a not insignificant number of years into the future.

Without a deal our leverage consists of two blunt instruments: continued sanctions that further alienate a whole new generation of Iranians and a pre-emptive military assault on Iranian nuclear facilities. Some folks casually invoke the “bomb, bomb Iran” option, but cooler heads know it would very likely mean a general war in a region where the United States’ ability to turn its military might into political change has been a dismal failure.

Ironically, as the administration has now started saying, Iranian failure to live up to the terms of the nuclear deal would actually create the context and rationale for taking military action to end the threat of a nuclear Iran. The international community will never support unilateral U.S. military action, but could be made to support air strikes, for example, if the Iranians cheat on the agreement.

The president, I believe, will ultimately prevail on the Iran deal and we’ll quickly return full attention to the political circus running up to another election. Still, it is worth considering the question Obama has persistently asked the critics of his diplomacy: What is your option? The answer is mostly crickets, but it is still a good question.


The Pope of Hope

CVC_TNY_12_23_13_no_date_580pxAn enduring image for me of the decidedly mixed year that is fast passing away is the whimsical cover illustration of a recent New Yorker magazine of the Jesuit Pope Francis spread eagled in the snow, six-year-old like, creating a snow angel. It seems a perfect image of hope in what has often seemed to be a year marked only by discord, strife and bitterness.

From the partisan breakdown in Washington politics, including the now distant memory of a pointless and costly shutdown of the federal government and the more recent abandonment of unemployment protections and reductions in food stamp benefits for millions of Americans, to the deadly and protracted civil wars in Syria and South Sudan and the near civil war in Iraq, from media fixation on the trivial ignorance of Duck Dynasty and Anthony Weiner to the incompetence of the Affordable Care Act roll out, only Pope Francis and Nelson Mandela seemed able this year to cut through the clutter and address something important.

In a superb profile in the same New Yorker with the Argentine snow angel on the cover, James Carroll offers a nuanced assessment of the still-new Bishop of Rome. Yet you come away from Carroll’s profile and the recent reporting of other Vatican watchers believing – even hoping – that this man is the radical that both his church and the world need. And the word radical is used not in its usual polarizing political context of right vs. left, but rather in the context of a moral and spiritual leader who recognizes the need for fundamental change both in tone and substance.

Carroll recounts that the Pope is “a large man with a ready smile” who preaches with fervor and with questions. “What kind of love do we bring to others? . . . Do we treat each other like brothers and sisters? Or do we judge one another?”

Elsewhere it is reported that President Obama sees the surprising Pope as an ally with like-minded notions about the need to shrink the gulf between the world’s rich and poor. However, what Francis has and Obama struggles to obtain may make the Pope a better mentor than a kindred soul. After two successive leaders of the Catholic Church who placed a premium on doctrinaire obedience by the church and its leaders to a our-way-or-the-highway view of social issues like gay rights, contraception and abortion, the new pope seems determined to reform the Catholic bureaucracy and turn the church’s message in a new and better direction with both his words and his deeds.

Symbols are important, as presidents from Lincoln to Reagan have taught us, and Pope Francis seems to instinctively grasp that truth. He has mostly abandoned the Popemobile for a small car, lives in a two room apartment rather than the Vatican penthouse, shuns the red loafers and ermine capes, and, yes, he kisses babies. He has attacked the bloated and corrupt Vatican bureaucracy like a born-again political reformer and dismissed some bishops and scolded others for forgetting – or ignoring – the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“The spirit of careerism,” Francis warned a recent gathering of new bishops, “is a form of cancer.” And he possessed of enough self-awareness – an indispensable political attribute  – not to shield himself from criticism. “Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others,” he wrote in recently, “I too must think about a conversion of the papacy.” That sounds a good deal like a radical with a plan laying the groundwork for a new direction.

One suspects that Francis also is a strategic enough political thinker to understand the value of surprise, the power of the unexpected gesture. As a 76-year old with only one lung Francis could easily have been a caretaker pope, but he’s been anything but so far. Rather he seems like a man in a hurry, at least in the context of a church that is defined by glacial change, who realizes he may not have much time to change things. So, with the surprise of his symbols and the courage of his convictions the pope, it seems to me, is executing on a grand strategy.

First he must change the focus of the church from a hectoring, secretive institution that has become comfortable with constantly saying “NO” to one that actually speaks of its real purpose, which is to serve the poor, seek justice, be inclusive even with non-believers, and advocate for peace. Once that moral authority is established and the bureaucracy is better under control he can move on to even more controversial issues.

One of the many remarkable things this new pope has done is to be gentle with the man he replaced. Under different circumstances and with a different leader having the previous Pope Benedict literally living above the store could have been awkward in the extreme. But Francis has done not only the kind and Christian thing, but the politically strategic thing by tending to his relationship with the uber doctrinaire ex-pope who once led the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican office dedicated to keeping the church in line. On Dec. 23 Pope Francis visited his predecessor for prayers and lunch, just the kind of small but telling gesture that speaks volumes and resonates on television.

Pope Francis like Mandela, another great leader who was able to transcend his circumstances, are better politicians than most politicians. They understand that change – political and institutional change – come from a careful meld of arts both soft and firm. Leadership requires both moral authority and sense of purpose. It can mean quiet persuasion delivered with a smile as well as fierce determination to succeed coupled with the energy and drive to execute on a plan. Leadership also means outwitting your opponents and, a lesson Obama has yet to learn after five years in office, a willingness to cajole, flatter and co-opt. But it begins with moral authority.

Perhaps the president’s New Years Resolution should be to not merely quote the pope’s speeches, but adopt his political tactics.

Given what may become the long lame duck presidency of Barack Obama and given the dispiriting lack of genuine leaders elsewhere in the world – think of the thuggish Putin or any of the bureaucrats running western European nations – maybe, just maybe we have reason to hope at the end of this mostly hopeless year that God does work in mysterious ways.

When most we need a reminder of what one man can do on a journey from a jail cell to the Nobel Peace Prize we end 2013 reflecting on Mandela’s remarkable life. And when most we need to believe that someone can articulate with real moral authority the universal truths of compassion, respect, inclusion and peace we at last have a Pope of Hope.


George Kennan

Diplomat, Scholar, Intellectual, American

You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard the name George F. Kennan.

If you’re under 50, didn’t fixate, as many of us did, on the daily threat of nuclear holocaust from the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and have always seen Russia (aka the Soviet Union) as “the evil empire,” then George Kennan might simply be a footnote in a dusty old college international relations textbook. In one way or another Kennan touched all those issues and lived a full, complicated, fascinating and fruitful life as well.

Kennan was, at the same time, an absolutely fascinating and frustrating man; contradictions that make for the great story that Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis details – warts and all – in his superb new biography. It is a testament to Kennan, the self-taught historian, that he gave Gaddis complete access to his papers, diaries, friends and thoughts and the result is biography on a grand scale.

And it is not too grand a statement to say that Kennan was the man more than any other to define Cold War foreign policy on both sides of the great capitalist/communist divide from the 1930’s to the end of the 20th Century.

Gaddis, like Kennan in his time, is a probing and distinguished scholar of foreign policy who has produced a book that surely appeals to anyone who cares about how the world we inhabit came to be this way. But Gaddis has also written a story of the life and struggles of a man who worked his way from junior diplomat in Moscow in 1933 to become the foremost scholar of American foreign policy, a position he continued to occupy until his death in 2005 at age 101.

The Guardian newspaper wrote upon his death that few people can “claim to have changed the shape of the age they lived in,” but Kennan certainly had. “Virtually singlehandedly, he established the policy which controlled both sides of the cold war for more than 40 years.”

As Henry Kissinger noted in his New York Times review of George F. Kennan – An American Life: “The debate in America between idealism and realism, which continues to this day, played itself out inside Kennan’s soul. Though he often expressed doubt about the ability of his fellow Americans to grasp the complexity of his perceptions, he also reflected in his own person a very American ambivalence about the nature and purpose of foreign policy.”

Kennan’s personal story is every bit as interesting as his public life. Born in Milwaukee, graduate of Princeton, Kennan joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1925. He was sent to Moscow 1933 to set up the U.S. embassy when Franklin Roosevelt established diplomatic relations with the Communist regime then headed by Josef Stalin. Kennan traveled extensively, wrote brilliantly and voluminously, mastered several languages, including Russian, and by the late 1930’s was in Berlin watching the world explode.

Back in Moscow in 1946, Kennan authored his famous “long telegram” that brilliantly dissected Russian post-war aims and served as the foundation for the development of his policy of containment.

Kennan came to deeply regret that his notion of containment, basically a willingness to confront the Soviets economically, culturally and with ideas, was perverted into becoming a purely military response. The conclusion of his long telegram stressed his essential belief that U.S. democratic values would eventually win the day against Soviet communist values.

“Finally,” Kennan wrote in 1946 in words that he would repeat time and again over the next half century, “we must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. After all, the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

Kennan’s approach to diplomacy – we could have used some of his clear thinking before stumbling into Vietnam and blundering into Iraq, two military misadventures that Kennan opposed – was to understand the motivations, the history, the culture, the literature, the fears and hopes of your adversaries and then to apply that knowledge to prevent confrontation. While he admittedly became more of a cynic about politics later in his life, he came back time and again to the belief that western democracies, if they were smart and true to their ideals, could win the battle of ideas with anyone.

Gaddis has written a brilliant biography; a history of the Cold War; a book about one man’s life that illuminates the path along which we came to the world in which we live. I cannot praise this book enough.